OPINION: Do TV debates sway voters?

Peter Williams 01/10/2020

This op-ed is written and read on air by Peter Williams on Magic Talk Mornings from 9am weekdays.

OPINION: Why do we worry about who might or might not have won the political debates yesterday? Do people ever really change their minds based on what they see on the screen in a 90 minute verbal slugfest - although compared to the unleashed, throw out the rules UFC cage fight that was Trump v Biden, our two female leaders were like a couple of lightweight amateurs in the first round of the Olympic bantamweight division. For political junkies, and so many of us follow the game in election season way more than at any other time, yesterday was a day to remember. But the key questions, as always, after the New Zealand leaders debate - are you changing your vote, are you thinking of changing your vote or was your thinking reinforced by what you saw last night?

I’ll give you a few thoughts of mine and then I’d love to hear what you’re thinking after the New Zealand debate, but we should also talk about the US show as well. For better, for worse the US is one of our most important allies and we do care about who wins the presidency. It was highly entertaining to watch, although deeply, deeply worrying. After an hour of it my thought was: this is the richest, most powerful and most innovative nation on earth and all they can do to offer as their president is one of these two guys? Trump, as we have known for years, long before he was president is a deeply, deeply flawed, arrogant, narcissistic individual who would be eminently suitable to laud over a tinpot dictatorship somewhere in the middle of Europe. He is a bully. I would suggest he is an inventor of facts. I mean, did he ever really pay 38 million in Federal income tax in any year? But if I was an American, and I had to choose between him and Joe Biden, I would pick Trump. That’s because he is dynamic and way more decisive than his opponent. You could see how he would deal with Xi Jin-ping or Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin. Each of them are such big dick swingers they wouldn’t dare upset each other. And when those other three pose a constant daily danger to the planet, isn’t it a good idea to have a big dick like Trump swinging for the free world?

At least Joe Biden didn’t completely crumble. At times he deteriorated into the bumbling and almost incoherent but somehow he managed to draw himself back again up off the canvas but you were still left thinking, would you want this old man as the President of the United States? It’s an awful appalling choice that Americans have. And when Biden starts bumbling and stumbling, when you think of the train wreck that so many democratic states and cities in the US have become, when you understand the agenda of people like Karmala Harris, I can see why many millions of Americans are going to say let’s stay with the devil we know rather than an aging senator at least 10 years past his best. We will talk more about the American election in the weeks to come, but the Dems must now be thinking long and hard about how they have failed so abysmally to find a moderate, credible, smart presidential candidate in his or her  40s or 50s who could have wiped the floor with the schoolyard bully. Maybe next time. 

Now back here thankfully neither of them resorted to the nonsense seen in Cleveland. What I would say - or to use Judith Collins thoroughly annoying phrase “I’ll tell you what” - is that at least the staging, the setup, the atmosphere was a significant step up from last week in that minimalist TV studio with substandard lighting. The addition of the audience added something although I have my doubts about how undecided they were. That was actually the wrong kind of audience. They should have had a highly partisan, 50 percent National supporters, and 50 percent Labour. Then at least the applause would have had a chance of being of equal volume and equal regularity. Because the audience in the theatre seemed way more appreciative of Jacinda Ardern than of Judith Collins. Did you think the same? And well done Paddy Gower. No messing around with ponderous thank yous and set pieces. It was concise and precise, covered a lot of ground with good pace and energy although the order of subjects was a bit weird. Was starting off with a hypothetical on Covid in Christchurch on Christmas Eve a good idea? I don’t think so. I would have preferred a real life scenario, even something as generic as a stock take from each of them on where they think New Zealand is at the moment. Not necessarily anything about a grand plan, but just a stock take of where they saw the country’s position as of the last day of September. Did we learn anything from last night? I’m delighted that both think a 4 year parliamentary term is a good idea. Let’s put that through in this term so that in 2023 we know who we elect will be in place for 4 years. I’m pleased there will be a good look at Pharmac, although Ardern is absolutely right in that it is only the clinicians and the scientists who should be making the decisions about what drugs they buy. I was disappointed with their dismissal of any serious discussion about changing the name of the country. I think that has to happen. I wish one of them would admit the tide is turning. I’m glad that both party’s positions on superannuation haven’t changed and that the Nats are at least prepared to start increasing the age although not for years to come. Ardern scored a few own goals. She’s happy that 12 million dollars was given to the Green School. Really? Maybe she saw that the debacle hasn’t cost the Greens any support - well according to the polls anyway, so has decided it won’t cost her any votes either. I think her continued prevarication on cannabis is pathetic. Every other party leader has a position. Why can’t she? Does she really believe that the way she votes will influence others? And anyway, don’t we all know that as a 40 year old who has used it in the past, she will vote yes? I take that as read. Ardern might have been a bit more forceful last night but she is so annoying with her prevarication and the regular reverting to slogans. What’s her visionary idea? Trade on our brand? What the hell does that mean? Mind you, Judith was a bit weak there too before sort of articulating about how the tech industry could be our saviour? There’s a lot of competition out there competing for that idea? 

What’s your thinking about the debate last night? And if you were home yesterday afternoon, what did you make of the Trump v Biden talkover fest? One thing I was disappointed about was the lack of discussion on economic matters, especially the impact of tax cuts and the Labour party’s proposed new labour legislation - things like the Fair Pay agreements, the complete abolition of the 90 day trial periods, the rise in the minimum wage, the extra cost of another 5 days sick leave and another public holiday.  That would have been intriguing to see if Ardern could have defended the bleeding obvious there - that is that all those changes will be a considerable imposition on employers, will add extra cost to doing business and in this current economic environment are very likely to lead to more people not working because employers won’t be able to afford them. Economic matters were hardly touched last night, although I found it seriously rich that Ardern referred to National’s proposed tax cuts as a sugar hit. This from the Queen of sugar hits, the leader of a party that has doled out billions.Who won? Does it matter? Did you learn anything? Certainly more than from the Trump-Biden affair, but that’s not saying much. Good to see that some other men of my generation think of Jacinda as a young idealist when she admitted her own father has called her a tree hugging lefty all her life. It’s probably a middle aged white pakeha thing. Unconscious bias and all that. I’ll give Judith Collins the line of the night. The question was is Phil Twyford an asset or a liability?  Collins said he’s my asset and he’s her liability. Bullseye!

This op-ed is written and read on air by Peter Williams on Magic Talk Mornings from 9am weekdays.